Enemy Lines, performed and choreographed by dance artist Mayumi Lashbrook, runs at Theatre Centre in Toronto from May 12 to 14 and at McMaster University’s L.R. Wilson Hall in Hamilton from May 26 to 28. Photo credit: Jess Bullock.
TORONTO — Enemy Lines, a new live performance by dance artist Mayumi Lashbrook weaves a contemporary perspective into a historical event, exploring how fear can divide and incarcerate humanity.
The performance explores the actions taken against Japanese Canadians—like Lashbrook’s family—during the Second World War, seeking to understand this dark chapter in Canadian history and how cycles of fear continue to perpetuate oppression and intolerant thinking. Presented by Aeris Körper, Enemy Lines runs at Theatre Centre in Toronto from May 12 to 14 and at McMaster University’s L.R. Wilson Hall in Hamilton from May 26 to 28.
“The climate of fear that led to the internment I witnessed firsthand in the pandemic. There was this resurgence of fear-based action with really negative repercussions, and while it was on a very different magnitude, [I thought], we can’t do this again,” Lashbrook tells Nikkei Voice in an interview. “Our ability to understand ourselves and our emotions can dissolve some of that fear-based thinking and those possibilities of continuing to perpetuate oppression.”
Lashbrook is a Toronto-based dance artist, choreographer, educator, and co-artistic director of Hamilton-based contemporary dance company Aeris Körper. Exemplified in Enemy Lines, Lashbrook’s dance work communicates through dynamic and powerful yet intricate movement and agile physicality.
Family history has always had a curious hold on Lashbrook, her maternal grandparents were forcibly uprooted from their home on the B.C. coast and sent to work on the sugar beet farms in Alberta. Lashbrook’s mother often talked about their family history. Growing up in a homogenous white neighbourhood, Lashbrook wanted to fit in with her classmates over standing out with her Japanese Canadian identity. But as an adult, that spark to explore her family history ignited.
“It was curiosity really around my grandfather and my connection with him. He was interned, and I found he’s quite reserved. He’s quite hard to connect with. I was curious about where that comes from. I spent time interviewing him and talking to my mom. That lineage between the generations was quite interesting,” says Lashbrook. “The history became very clear, that there’s a ripple effect through my family that made me really understand them more and connect to who they are now.”
She spoke to her aunts and researched her family’s case files from the Landscapes of Injustice database, finding letters, photographs, and documents about her family’s internment and dispossession during the war. Sprinkled throughout the performance are some of these discoveries from her research, a letter written by her great-grandmother, audio snippets from her grandfather, and family photos.
Lashbrook began developing the work in the early days of the pandemic when the city was in lockdown. She documented and choreographed an original dance film from her home called Defined by Bone, with support from Canada Council’s Digital Originals fund. Over the last three years, Lashbrook has continued to develop the work to its current form, Enemy Lines.
The emphasis on generational experiences is not only seen in the piece itself but in the creative process behind Enemy Lines. Through a mentorship with award-winning Japanese Canadian dance artist Denise Fujiwara, the two perspectives of Sansei and Yonsei artists combine to create a multi-generational expression of the Japanese Canadian experience.
A choreographer, dance artist, and teacher with 45 years of experience, Fujiwara is the founding artistic director of Fujiwara Dance Inventions and CanAsian Dance Festival. The latter is an organization that supports the development of Canadian choreographers who create work with Asian roots and ideas.
“I had always been curious about Denise’s work. She has a wonderful reputation and a world-renowned presence,” says Lashbrook. “I wanted [to work with] somebody who was going to push me, who was not going to make it easy for me to create something that because it’s so emotionally charged, it’s a family story.”
When Lashbrook initially approached Fujiwara, she turned her down. Instead, she encouraged her to participate in the Fujiwara Dance Inventions’ Solo Dance Lab, an intensive lab on developing solo choreography and discovering and deepening one’s voice as a dance creator. Impressed with Lashbrook’s ambition and courageousness in the dance lab, Fujiwara decided to take her on as a mentee.
Through the dance lab, Lashbrook created the structure for a solo dance film commissioned by CanAsian Dance and presented at the festival’s 2021 GRIT: Short Dances Program. Over the last two years, Lashbrook has been working with Fujiwara, who offers fresh eyes, a new perspective, and encouragement to dig deep into the work.
“[As a mentor], it’s not my place to tell her what to do. It’s my place to prod her to think about what she’s doing from perhaps a different perspective,” says Fujiwara. “I ask her questions to clarify what she’s trying to do, which when you’re in the midst of creating a work of art, especially a non-verbal work of art, can be really hard to figure out.”
For Fujiwara, a Sansei, and Lashbrook, a Yonsei, working together has led to cross-generational conversations and sharing, reflected within the dance piece. Born a decade after the war ended, Fujiwara grew up feeling a sense of shame about being Japanese Canadian. The only Japanese representation in media were war movies and cartoons, where the Japanese characters were depicted cartoonishly or evilly.
“That’s what they thought Japanese people were, my friends and peers. There was a lot of shame involved in being Japanese, and that was another reason to keep your head down and try to fit in and try not to emphasize one’s Japanese-ness in any way,” says Fujiwara. “That reinforcement also came from the home because, at any point that you put your Japanese-ness out there, we knew we were vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, Lashbrook realized as a child that her peers thought being Japanese was cool. Japanese foods, anime, manga, and toys were prevalent in pop culture. Fujiwara’s perspective as a Sansei has helped create a fuller understanding of Japanese Canadian identity that Lashbrook considered while creating the piece.
“I do recognize that’s a privilege within my generation, and I think because of our connection, there have been so many moments where I [realized] I can’t just assume that this is everyone’s experience, and in some ways, it’s pulled me into a more well-rounded understanding,” says Lashbrook.
Thirty years ago, Fujiwara also created a dance piece about the Japanese Canadian experience, which the two discussed and compared while working on Enemy Lines. Three decades later, themes of fear, intolerance, and displacement continue to ring true. Lashbrook hopes audiences can see that while this story explores a moment in Japanese Canadian history 80 years ago, these cycles of oppression and displacement continue to repeat throughout history to the present day.
“It’s really easy to look at history and feel apart from it. I [hope this piece has] the ability to bring it closer to this moment and use it as a mirror to ask how we want to live right now and in the future,” says Lashbrook.
For Lashbrook, this mentorship has not only helped in creating new work and deepening her artistic voice but in understanding and exploring her Japanese Canadian identity. Their mentorship relationship has extended to everyday life, such as seeing shows and reading books together.
“It’s felt like the more I’m around Denise and the more I dive into the Japanese side of my life, I am unlocking more and more about myself that makes sense. It’s revealed to me the broadness of who I am. It’s been such a beautiful discovery, and it’s grounded me in self-assurance and confidence,” says Lashbrook. “It seeps into more than just my artistic practice, it allows me to understand myself in all elements of my life, and I’m incredibly grateful. It’s been life-changing.”